Forgiving is not the same as forgetting, nor is being forgiven the same as forgetting that for which we are forgiven. Christian spirituality does not violate human psychology. Remembering is a healthy process of the mind. Forgiving and being forgiven has to do with living gracefully with our pasts and remembering why we can live into our futures.
We can pray these days of living from and toward the Eucharist, with certain memories of our personally being forgivers and forgiven. We can pray gratefully with those memories of persons who pardoned our trespasses. We might grimace at our past’s deeds and then smile as we recall those who asked us back into life. We can pray as well with the sense of freedom which has come to us when we released others from their prisons of our own construction.
We hear in the First Reading for this liturgy a threat and a plea. The people of Israel have been wandering in the desert for a long time and their leader, Moses, has gone up a mountain to pray. They experienced Moses’ leaving as abandonment and in their anxiety they turn to Aaron that he might fashion them a new god.
The “calf” or even better, an image of a bull is created from various jewelry and the people announce that this symbol of power and potency had brought them out of Egypt and they celebrated disgracefully. What we hear is God’s reaction and Moses’ response to God’s anger. Notice in the first verse that God says to Moses that he should go down to “your” people, no longer “my” people. Something else to notice is that God would destroy the ancient people who are descendants of Abraham and replace them with a new people who would descend from Moses. This would be a complete separation from the history of God’s fidelity and covenants of love.
Moses has his turn then. He reminds God of God’s promises to Abraham, and his descendants. Moses recalls that God had done great things for the people of Israel. In a sense Moses reminds God Who God has been, is and will be. Moses wins, the people of Israel win, and God wins back their trust.
Many people like to think that the Hebrew Scriptures picture God as wrathful, punishing, and inconsistently unaware of human frailty. The people of Israel were being formed slowly into a “remembering remnant” who could not forget their failures nor God’s ever-lasting memory of the Eternal embrace of them. The Hebrew-Scripture picture of God had to be fashioned according to the image they had of themselves. They knew the nature of sin and they punished each other and so expected God was exactly like them. The great revelation to them was that God was not like them at all.
The Gospel has two little parable-stories and one famous long one having several parts. All three are about the responses to welcoming back the lost. The true nature of all three parables has to do with how the early followers of Jesus (the early Christian community) would welcome back the “lost” or those who had once been in the community, but had drifted off to other groups. It is very important to notice the nature of those listening to Jesus tell these stories.
Tax collectors (those collecting taxes from the Jews, for the dominating Roman empire) and other sinners were drawing near to listen. Pharisees and Scribes were also attentive to His words. A lost sheep, a lost coin, and an apparently lost son, help create the tension of these stories. The sheep and coin are found by the respective finders and both rejoice at the reunion. The “son” coming to his senses…” finds himself first and then finds a rejoicing-father welcoming his son back home.
It is easy to name the “elder Son” the Pharisees and Scribes, because they are the representatives of the “old” relationship with God and the “younger son” representing the younger or newer way offered in and through Jesus. The “elder” might just be those of the “new” who find living the “new” more difficult.
The “new” is the welcoming back those who have wandered and not just once, but “seventy-times seventy”. Yes, this is our tension as we try to live the always “new” compassionate ways of Jesus.
Families are a major relational place for injuries and forgivings,or not. It is not easy to forgive and also not easy to be unforgiving within families. Those relationships grow so close, so slowly and then they rupture so quickly and seemingly, definitely. Marital infidelity, teenage pregnancy, financial cheating, physical abuse, relational neglect, emotional abandonment, and verbal quarrels are only several of the fractures within families which put pressure on our living the “new” pattern of Jesus. The younger son would always have to remember and live with his past choices. The elder son had to be reminded of his father’s constancy in his own past and would have to remember also his self-righteous anger and jealousy. We all have to live remembering both our pasts and God’s constant welcoming of us back. The other is true too, we have to welcome back, those who went away, did us harm, broke our hearts, and left us beaten, robbed and half dead. It is healthy for us to have good memories. It is difficult to keep remembering that we, too, are welcomed back.
I wish Luke had written a little more about how that family lived after the party was over. Were there snide remarks by the younger son about how easy it was to come back, and “If it wasn’t for you….” Perhaps the elder son mused out loud about how good it was when a certain person wasn’t around. Family-forgiving, family-welcoming is where Christianity hurts or heals. It is not so easy being in God’s family all the time, but especially when our injuries are not healed and yet we are sent and meant to be healers and welcomers. Ouch!
“Have mercy on me, o God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offenses.” Ps. 51, 3
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